Why the Raptors will always be losers

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:38 PM ET

TORONTO - The Philadelphia Flyers have been looking for a goalie for 15 years, the Oakland Raiders have spent two fruitless decades searching for a quarterback and the Toronto Raptors are like the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz.

Forever looking for some heart.

There are many issues that have contributed to making the Raptors the NBA’s version of a walk through Death Valley. Players don’t have strong feelings for the franchise, even though most of them tend to like the city of Toronto a lot.

True, that can lead to some partying issues. But if wine and women were absolute guarantees of failure, then all 30 NBA teams would have losing records, and we know that’s mathematically impossible.

There is this perception that Toronto is where NBA careers and playoff dreams go to die.

“You can fall into a culture of under achievement just like you can develop a culture of winning or excellence. Success breeds success but failure also breeds failure,” says Natascha Wesch, a sports psychology consultant, at the University of Western Ontario.

The Raptors have turned failure into an artform.

In 15 seasons, the franchise has reached the playoffs five times and advanced past the first round only once. There have been seven head coaches from the celebrated (Lenny Wilkens) to the unlikely (Kevin O’Neill) to the native son (Jay Triano) and none have been able to instill a passion and pride in being a Raptor.

Nobody in the front office, from the player-friendly Isiah Thomas to the more aloof Bryan Colangelo and the sincerest spirit this side of Dudley DoRight, Glen Grunwald, have been able to give this team a positive identity. None have been able to make the Raptors a franchise for which NBA players want to play.

The athletes that do come here either end up frustrated with the franchise’s inertia, or become mere basketball mercenaries putting in time until a better invitation beckons.

“Teams who are succesful have that swagger and believe that this is the way life is and that they have an entitlement to success. There is cohesion, a sense of fighting for the same thing, not just a contract for next year,” says Bert Carron, a psychologist and one of Canada’s most highly-regarded experts on group and team dynamics.

“Teams that are zero-and-20 never have team reunions. Success produces togetherness.”

The Raptors never seem to get it together compiling just three playoff game victories in the past eight seasons. The Raptors, says Carron, “from their inception, have had athletes trying to get out of town. That sense of this is a place to play and we’re as good as anyone doesn’t seem to be there.”

That was all supposed to start to change this year with new players and a new attitude.

Never happened.

Some blame Colangelo’s reliance of European players, noting they are soft. But, let’s be honest, this team hasn’t scared anyone but it’s fans in years, well before Colangelo went puddle-jumping.

The Raptors have been regarded as pushovers, particularly since the Vince Carter era. They have a reputation as a team that can’t — or won’t — fight through adversity or stand up for each other.

These guys kick butt about as often as the cute, cuddly kittens in those Charmin’ bathroom commercials.

Last November, Celtics’ Paul Pierce postured over a prone Chris Bosh after dunking over the Raptors’ best player and driving a knee into his crotch.

The referees assessed Pierce a technical for trash talk, Toronto coaches were up and screaming. Bosh’s teammates didn’t even bother getting off the bench.

This is a team in serious need of a make-over.

“Tell them I’m available anytime they want,” chuckles John Eliot.

A member of the faculty at Rice University and one of America’s most renowned performance consultants. Eliot helped turn a moribund Tampa Bay Rays franchise into a championship contender. He has worked with the San Antonio Spurs, NASA, the U.S. Olympic team and major corporations like Merrill Lynch. He is a proponent of the Phil Jackson school of coaching.

Teams, he says, spend too much time on the Xs and Os and not enough on winning the mental game.

“Until they (Raptors) make a fundamental shift like this they’re going to sputter,” says Eliot. “Players who spend all their time on the physical game only know how to block, run, lift, shoot, or swing. There are a lot of athletes who know how to do those things. Only a few really know how to win.”

At the professional level, athletes are all fairly equal in talent. The difference then between athletes who win and those who don’t (like the Raptors) is how they think.

“A player who can win the inner battle knows how to win. He knows his game will hold up under pressure. The outcome is determined by which players or teams have the more confident, relaxed, more quiet mind. When it’s do or die, its not a question anymore of who has the best cross-over or who’s fade-away happens to be working. The question is who will be able to keep their mind quiet in the pressure situation,” says Eliot.

“That’s why you see teams with all kinds of talent, teams with the best drafts, but they never win championships.”

Or, in the Raptors case rarely make the playoffs.

There have been innumerable examples of Raptors whose minds seemed to be in all the wrong places, including one instance when Chris Childs even forgot the score and blew a game.

Alonzo Mourning went one step further — deciding not to show up in either mind or body.

Bad karma all round.

Which explains why Vince Carter at the end was more concerned about his mother’s free parking space than his team’s playoff place.

“It comes down to pride,” explains Wesch. “There has to be a semse of belonging to something important. There has to be a change of culture and that starts at the top with the administration, with coaching, you have to instill a sense of pride, of passion, a sense of belonging, a sense of wanting to wear that jersey, of wanting to be part of that organization. That is who you are. That is your home and you will do anything to defend that territory with everything that you have.”

When Pierce stared down Bosh, nobody is suggesting the Raptors should’ve started World War III but they could’ve at least pretended to care.

“There’s no other way to say it — we just got punked,” said Raptors’ swingman, Antoine Wright at the time, in a rare display of disapproval amidst indifference.

There is pride in wearing a Celtics’ jersey.

There is tradition in a Lakers’ uniform.

A Raptors jersey is just filled with broken promises.

“When you look at the Raptors organization there’s nothing that screams out, nothing that makes a kid want to be part of it because there’s a tradition of excellence. If you can’t build that culture how can you inspire some kid (from the U.S.) who lives 5,000 kilometres away to want to play for you,” says Wesch.

“Success isn’t just a matter of skill. There are lots of skilled athletes. It’s about desire and heart, that respect and passion for the jersey. That symbol represents who we are as a team, as players, as people, as an organization and you don’t put that on the floor to get stepped on.”

The Raptors always get stepped on, like in losing to a broken-down Bulls team in the final week of a playoff race. At home.

Like in being out-hustled by a beatable Golden State team.

Like in getting out-muscled for rebounds.

Like in waving people by on defence like a traffic cop at rush hour.

Passivity has plagued the Raptors for years. During a game in Memphis when Sam Mitchell was coaching, Jamario Moon hit the court head first after a very hard and dirty foul by Hakeem Warrick.

Mitchell was the only Raptor who reacted that night with anything close to anger.

The Raptors have had talent. Carter and Bosh are all-NBA performers. They just haven’t had the intangible, call it intensity or a team with a hardened edge.

“It’s possible to have a lot of talent and still not succeed. Eighty to ninety percent of winning is the mental side of sport. The top players have that figured out,” says Craig Hall, a professor in Kinesiology at the University of Western Ontario, who specializes in imaging.

“You have to be able to imagine yourself being succesful. If you can’t imagine it, it’s unlikely you will be succesful.”

The Raptors have had nine players on the league’s all-rookie team and off the floor, Colangelo was named executive of the year.

But they have never had an inspirational team leader — a guy who would grab a floundering team by the scruff of the neck like a Michael Jordan in basketball or a Mark Messier or a Joe Namath or even a Pinball Clemons.

Never have they had a player who when his athletic ability was calculated, came up to more than the sum of his parts.

“Team leaders have a huge part in success. I’m talking about that E.F. Hutton in the locker room; he says something and everyone listens,” says Carron.

“A lot of people can talk but it has to be a team-first guy; if you’ve got no credibility nobody is going to listen. It doesn’t have to be a Hall of Famer but it has to be someone respected for their work ethic or their skill or both.”

Damon Stoudamire was rookie of the year. In between, Tracey McGrady was a star and Marcus Camby seemed a pillar on which to build.

Now there are Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu. But Bargnani can score 20 one night and disappear the next. Turkoglu is enigmatic and by NBA standards, fragile. He’s had to come out of games for everything from fatigue to a sore tummy and at 31 looks lifeless instead of Colangelo’s Godsend.

Jose Calderon seems over-matched too many nights. To suggest it’s because they’re European is too simplistic.

OK, nobody plays defence. It doesn’t mean they can’t. They just don’t. Defence is more about will and toughness than pure skill. Again, it comes to mindset.

In the NBA, the Spurs, Celtics, Phil Jackson in Los Angeles, and just recently Portland, have all adopted many of Eliot’s theories. Their records suggest it works. And, Eliot draws a parallel between the Rays’ history of chronic under-achievement and the Raptors.

“You had the same situation. I worked with the Rays for a couple years. They had Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff and they brought in plenty of talent. But the clubhouse, the front office, the culture around the team was, ‘Well you can’t win in Tampa Bay, you can’t get fans in Tampa Bay.’ There was a feeling that for some reason it would be harder there than anywhere else.”

Somehow the pieces to the puzzle in Tampa, as with the Raptors, never seemed to fit.

It wasn’t until the organization started to pay as much attention to the mental game as the technical side (the scouting, drafting, skill sets, game strategy) that it became succesful.

Meantime, it’s becoming evident the Raptors will lose Bosh to free agency. It seems unlikely that he can imagine the Raptors turning into a Cinderella team.

After watching his team lose 19 of the last 30 games in another disastrous playoff run, it is difficult to argue the point.

It is also difficult to argue that he would become the latest in a long series of leaders who, from Moses to Vince, has ended up in the desert rather than a promised land. That doesn’t make Bosh a bad person or a bad player but for whatever reason he hasn’t been able to transfer the passion and excellence with which he plays to his teammates.

Bloggers and fans are already critical of Bosh for — even before getting his face rearranged — “mentally” shutting it down.

But maybe the reality is that Bosh didn’t quit on the team but rather that the team quit on Bosh. It happens.

“I was coaching football in Saskatchewan,” says Carron, “and I had an Olympic wrestler and he was just so discouraged with how inept we were as a football team, he told me, ‘I just have to play for myself because if I think about how the team is doing I just get so discouraged I can’t even function.’ Maybe that happens at the pro level. A player just feels I tried and tried and tried — but we’re not going to get there as a team.”

That pretty much sums up the Raptors. They aren’t going to get there. The players can sense it.

Wright, after an embarrassing 35-point loss to Charlotte earlier this year, looked around the dressing room and noted: “You’ve got guys in here eating popcorn, joking around before the game. And we go out there and lose by 40. It’s a direct result of what’s going on before the game. Guys not coming in with the right mind frame.”

So, as the final candle is blown out on the team’s 15th anniversary, they aren’t much further ahead then the day they were born.

They’re hard up against the salary cap with a roster of largely untradeable contracts and face the prospect of losing their best player.

Which brings us to the future of the Raptors.

Maybe the solution lies in the mind not in free agency, or the European League, the NBA draft, or even in whether Bosh stays or goes.

Eliot suggests the Raptors follow the example of Kevin Pritchard in Portland, another under-achieving franchise plagued by a history of players who ranged from uncaring to, to inept, to border-line criminals.

“He’s scraped a lot of technical stuff (and) focusses on getting a team to have pride and getting the type of players who are very loose before games. They added (LaMarcus Aldridge and (Brandon) Roy ... they could’ve gotten guys with better statistics on paper but they didn’t. They wanted guys who fit the mould (and) they could do the same thing in Toronto. It would take time, money, effort.”

It would also require a leap of faith. But the Raptors have tried the gunslinger route, and they’ve had the guys with the white hats. They’ve tried Euro-ball and none of it has really worked.

Maybe Phil Jackson is right — maybe when it comes to winning in the NBA, it is all in their heads.

Notes Eliot: “People who have a great mindset tend to succeed. People who haven’t yet learned a great mindset tend to fail. Yet most teams don’t train their players in confidence, or don’t devote nearly as much time and effort to it as they do to teaching something like passing skills.

“That’s because passing skills are tangible and measurable.

“Confidence happens to be neither. It also happens to be more important.”

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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